Can you effortlessly retain a phone number between the time you hear it and the time you dial? When introduced to a group of people, can you remember each of their names a few minutes later?
If the answer to either of the above questions is yes, you likely have an excellent working memory, i.e. your brain is easily able to hold onto a piece of information before deciding whether to toss it out or store it away as long-term memory. Congratulations! That’s a huge boon. Not only is working memory an important process for reasoning, comprehension and learning, it’s also highly correlated with intelligence.
So what separates those with high-capacity working memories from the rest of the pack? Somewhat counterintuitively, they’re better at ignoring information, according to new research from the University of British Columbia. Put another way, they’re able to quickly discern and focus on relevant incoming data, while recognizing (and promptly discarding) irrelevant distractors.
Previous research has hinted as much -- i.e. that those with high-capacity working memories are simply better at identifying and holding onto important stimuli -- but didn’t satisfactorily parse out how they’re able to do so.
By tracking participants' brain activity while completing a series of tasks, the researchers believe they have an answer:
Our electrophysiological measures reveal that although high-capacity individuals are able to actively suppress distractors, low-capacity individuals cannot suppress them in time to prevent distractors from capturing attention.
In other words, by reading their brain waves, the researchers found that participants with high-capacity working memories excelled at ignoring irrelevant sensory data so they could concentrate only on pertinent information to the taskt at hand.
For proficient working memory, then, the power to ignore pointless background noise --- to tune out the construction work outside, your co-workers, maybe even your boss -- is just as important as the ability to zero in on what’s truly important.